WATCHING crops rot due to a lack of workers to pick them is hurting more than farmers' wallets.
The National Lost Crop register, launched last December to monitor the details of lost crops since COVID hit, has shown nearly one in every four respondents reporting impacts on their physical and mental health.
These impacts include increased working hours, elevated stress levels, loss of confidence, and depression.
The register allows growers to anonymously report the costs of ongoing labour shortages, beyond those that are purely financial.
Growcom chief executive officer, Stephen Barnard, said the current labour shortage was impacting businesses and livelihoods industry wide.
"We are witnessing a concerning number of growers reporting not just financial losses, but also a decline in mental health, strain on personal finances, and doubt surrounding their future participation in the industry," he said.
Some of the comments from growers include:
- "It is an incredibly demoralising situation. On the one hand you just keep saying to yourself 'keep going, it will get better, you will catch up' but what ends up happening is you fall further and further behind." - a Queensland grower.
- "We had a substantial amount of stress - seeing abundance in fruit, all just hanging there, dilapidating. We lost a prodigious amount of income." - a New South Wales grower.
One grower registered concern that rising stress and tension may lead to increased instances of domestic violence.
At last week's Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)' Outlook 2021 online conference, speaker and Pinata Farms' managing director, Gavin Scurr, said he had long term staff that had been on stress leave now due to the strain from the past 12 months.
Mr Scurr said his company had left more than 3 million punnets of strawberries to rot in the field on the Sunshine Coast on the backend of the season last year (September and October), plus "400 odd tonne" of pineapples in Mareeba, as well as raspberries in Stanthorpe.
"There's also the emotional impact on our staff, particularly our long term people who have busted their guts all season to produce that crop in very difficult situations... to then watch it rot," Mr Scurr said.
"There are just not enough people to harvest it."
Growcom manager of policy and advocacy, Richard Shannon, said it was important for the horticulture industry to capture and convey the hidden and unintended human costs of government decisions to stop the introduction of COVID-19 into the community.
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"Clearly these are difficult decisions and we're in no way envious of our health officials," he said.
"A decision to restrict arrivals into Australia at the same time protects us from COVID-19 but also exposes us to other harms to human health.
"The candid reports to date to the National Lost Crop Register from an otherwise stoic community have been very saddening."
Lost cash and crops keep rising
WHILE the psychological stress builds, the financial strain on the growing sector has skyrocketed.
Last week the National Lost Crop register clicked past $45 million.
Sixty-five separate crop losses from five states and territories have now reported on the register.
Just under two-thirds of all respondents flagged reduced future productivity after struggling to harvest produce within the desired time frame this season.
One grower from New South Wales said they were forced to abandon last year's winter harvest.
"When the labour shortage hit hardest, we could not keep up with the ripening fruit," the grower said.
"The financial loss will impact on the speed of new farm developments and re-development of our existing farm."
Five growers have been so severely impacted they are at risk of being foreclosed on by their bank or are considering selling their properties and leaving the industry altogether.
"Our last option is to sell the farm which may end up a reality. We have no confidence that there will be adequate workers available in 2021," a Queensland grower said.
"I have not been able to harvest any produce. I am also struggling to meet my commitments and living expenses as a result of this. I am very stressed and worried that the bank will foreclose on me," a NSW grower said.
The hit to growers and the horticulture industry comes when overall things were looking upbeat.
The latest ABARES Agricultural Commodities Report for the March quarter 2021 predicted the healthy rise of horticulture's value in 2020-21.
"Despite a forecast fall in the volume of production, higher prices are forecast to result in an increase in the gross value of horticultural production by 6 per cent to almost $13 billion in 2020-21, 17pc above the 5-year average to 2019-20 in nominal terms," the report said.
"The value of vegetable production is forecast to increase to a record high of $4.9 billion, 18pc above the 5-year average to 2019-20 in nominal terms.
"The value of fruit and tree nut production is forecast to increase to $5.6 billion, 20pc above the 5-year average to 2019-20 in nominal terms."
It went on to say: "The value of horticultural production is forecast to fall in 2021-22 and 2022-23. With overseas labour assumed to return in stages to pre-COVID-19 levels over those years, production is forecast to increase and prices to fall."
Growcom called on the federal and state governments to double down on their initiatives to incentivise Australians to take up harvest jobs, and urgently expand quarantine capacity to safely accommodate foreign workers.
- Growers can record their losses anonymously by CLICKING HERE.
- Growers who feeling overwhelmed or having difficulty coping should call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
- Growers experiencing financial hardship should contact the Rural Financial Counselling Service on 1800 686 175.
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